Helping as a Form of Intervention

help-125The notion of helping as a form of intervention has fascinated me since my first semester of grad school, back in 2009. Since then, I have learned the importance of establishing a 50/50 helping relationship and have come to understand the underlining meanings of asking for help.  However, until recently, I was missing one big piece of this helping puzzle:  How do we as consultants enter an organization and empower those we are helping help themselves? How do we get away from this expert role and simply establish a helping relationship? I understood the ideas of all of these things, but was never fully sure how to put them into practice until recently.

Truth be told, I have never felt comfortable acting as an “expert”, or playing the “diagnostician” role; I have always believed that these types of roles are for people who are actual physicians, attorneys, and accountants. I try my hardest to be an honest person and in my opinion, there is something inherently dishonest with a consultant entering an organization and acting as though they understand all the inner workings, quarks, and intricacies.

Because of this, for about a year now, I have been trying to find a comfortable niche for myself where my client and I have both felt comfortable in the fact that I was not willing to play the expert role. However, the more consultants I saw entering my organization acting as experts, the more uncertain I became that this was something I would ever be able to accomplish. Enter in Edgar Schein’s book Process Consultation. I think what I like best about process consultation is that this is something that is important in all aspects of life. As Schein puts it, “the philosophy and methodology of process consultation is… central to all human relationships, not only those that are formally defined as helper/client.”


I have long noticed the dichotomy of the helping relationship. Someone clearly needs help; someone else offers help and sometimes nothing seems to get accomplished. The helper is so excited to offer her services that she pushes too much and the helpee becomes resistant. Schein states that this often occurs due to the psychodynamics of help. When someone asks for help, they can feel discouraged or as though they have lost a portion of their status because they were unable to help themselves. Understanding and accepting this helps build a relationship where both parties will hear and understand each other and enable each other to give what is needed. As a consultant, it is our job to listen carefully to what our client is saying, and to interject at the appropriate times with questions that enable the client to open up. At the same time, questions cannot be too deep right away, as we have to build a relationship of trust and if we do not wait for the proper opportunity, we could potentially run things off course.

Schein gives 10 principles to helping, some are pretty obvious and self-explanatory, so I won’t g into those, rather, I will use this platform as a way to look more in depth into some of his more thought provoking principles. Nonetheless, here are the 10 principles:

  1. Always try to be helpful
  2. Always stay in touch with the current reality.
  3. Access your ignorance.
  4. Everything you do is an intervention.
  5. It is the client who owns the problem and the solution.
  6. Go with the flow.
  7. Timing is crucial.
  8. Be constructively opportunistic with confrontational interventions.
  9. Everything is a source of date; errors are inevitable – learn from them.
  10. When in doubt share the problem.

Four Principles to Consider

When it comes to relationship building, four principles go hand in hand: (1) staying in touch with the current reality, (2) accessing your ignorance, (3) the client owns the problem and the solution, and (4) everything you do is an intervention.  As I stated earlier, I feel incredibly uncomfortable playing the expert role. In my experience dealing with people or organizations (or people within those organizations) the more assumptions I make, the less helpful I am to those I am interacting with.

On the other hand, the more open and honest I am with the client the quicker we are able to build a quality relationship where trust is the first building block.  During our first meeting, I will begin by introducing myself; I will then listen to what the client has to say, after this I typically explain to the client that I do not have pre-planned solution for them. This usually catches them off guard until I explain that I do not know enough about their current situation and feel that it is more beneficial for us to work together in a partnership so we can find the solution that works best for him and his organization (this also avoids the client becoming dependent on me as a consultant).

The first three of these principles came pretty easily to me. I understood them, felt that they made sense and could readily connect with them.  However, considering everything I do as an intervention was a world more complex for me. I never thought about that before. It was pretty mind blowing when I first read it. In fact, I had to read over this principle several times. Schein asserts “just as every interaction reveals diagnostic information, so does every interaction have consequences both for the client and for me. I therefore have to own everything I do and assess the consequences to be sure that they fit my goals of creating a helping relationship”.

Whoa, that is some pretty heavy stuff right there. Until I read this, I felt that I had an out. If something went wrong it was not necessarily my fault. Clearly the client was unreceptive or resistant; there was nothing else I could have done to make the situation work better. Oh boy was I WRONG! And to be totally honest, this is a little scary. If every action is an intervention, we all need to pay closer attention to our actions and interactions with everyone. My need and ability to reflect just got a lot more real

Equally as important, Schein’s Process Consultation Revisited has made me realize that the extent to which we follow these principles plays a direct correlation to the quality of the relationships we build: in other words, the more open I am about my ideas and expectations, the more internal and external check-in’s I do, and the more I acknowledge the fact that I do not and cannot know everything the client is going through, the better our relationship will be. My ability to interpret what is going on within myself, within my client and within the situation affects my ability to be helpful. Likewise, discovering what I do not know enables me to ask my client the right questions. After a meeting with a client, reflect on what you know for a fact. You can accomplish this best by asking yourself how you know that piece of information is a fact. If your client didn’t tell you something straight out it isn’t a fact, it is an assumption on your part.  Next, examine your assumptions. What made you presume something? The more you practice accessing your ignorance, the stronger your client relationships will become because you will be leveling the imbalances in the helper/helpee roles.

I think it is also important to note the key role learning plays in Schein’s process consultation model. As a consultant, I never put much thought into my own learning; and have always focused on the client and the client’s learning. However, after reading through his book (several times) I understand how important it is for me to reflect and learn as well.

Schein’s helping model is multi-faceted and has more layers than an onion. At first glance it seems like a simple model to implement, and it is. However, the more layers you peel back and examine the more successful you will become at being an interventionist and a helper. To understand the intricacies of helping one must first take a step back and examine their own actions in interventions, the more honest you are with yourself the better you will be.

This entry was posted in Change Management, Human Resources, Leadership, Organizational Development. Bookmark the permalink.

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